Obsolete Sounds

By Deane Barker on April 11, 2007

I was driving through rural South Dakota with my son the other day and a radio ad for a local Internet provider came on. In the background, under the voiceover, was the screeching sound of a modem handshake, meant to invoke the idea of logging onto the Internet.

I have no doubt that this rural provider still had quite a few dial-up customers, but son turned to me and said, “What’s that annoying noise you always hear when they talk about the Internet?”

He’s 12. He knows nothing but broadband.

With this, I was confronted by the fact that here we have a noise which technology has rendered obsolete: a modem handshake. It’s rapidly disappearing from the world, and younger people have no idea what it means so any implicit meaning it’s supposed to carry is missing.

Joe mentioned another one to me when I brought this up: the sound of the needle on a record player dragging across the surface (see the Gay Chicken scene from “Scrubs”). Those of us older than, say, 25 take this for granted, but there’s a whole generation of kids for whom it’s totally meaningless.



  1. Speaking of Scrubs and YouTube —

    While looking for that link, I found my favorite clip from the show. The “He’s Got Fluid” beat-box from “My White Whale” episode.


    The version at the end of the episode — when Dr. Cox wakes up the end to his son coughing — is even better, but I can’t find that one.

  2. the needle scratching thing was on Weekend America on NPR last year. it was pretty funny – they went around and asked teenagers what they thought that sound was supposed to be and most had no idea at all. can’t find it because the weekend america site search isn’t working for me right now…..

  3. For me, it was telling my kids that they sounded like “a broken record”, and they asked me what “a broken record” was. Sigh.

  4. Because old-style dialup was often unreliable, I always found the sound of an established connection to be reassuring. I don’t think that I ever turned it off. I wonder what broadband sounds like.

  5. Don’t forget the sound of Space Invaders as they come marching down the screen. As each minute goes by…they march a little faster…

  6. Modern cameras fake the sound of a mechanical shutter. (Particularly as this becomes more stylised) there will come a generation who recognise it as the sound of taking a photograph, but don’t know why.

  7. Modern cameras fake the sound of a mechanical shutter.

    Good one, Along those same lines —

    The dial tone on a phone is rapidly becoming obsolete as people switch to VOIP. We just installed a VOIP system in our office, and it turns out the dial tone is a WAV file sitting on the phone server that plays through the phone when you pick it up.

  8. Thank someone for Fisher Price – the rotary dial phone would be obsolete as well. My 2 yr-old sure knows how to work that thing even though it looks / sounds nothing like a typical [modern] phone.

  9. Add to the list the sound of a phonograph needle hissing in the background when listening to an album. My kids were listening to some albums at home a while back, and the youngest one asked what that noise was. “That’s really annoying,” says the 8 year old. All he’s ever heard is CD’s.

    That Gay Chicken thing was hilarious!

  10. A few more examples for the list, is that sometime in the near future, hybrid cars will lead to the demise of the reassuring engine starter noise and engine idle.

    I was also born at a point in time that by the time I recognized sounds, the “chak-ching” of cash registers have been phased out by digital beepers.

    And further, the sound of the dot matrix printer printing the credit card transcations are phased out by thermal paper (printing two separate copies instead of one overlaid copy). It might sound reassuring to some of us which occasionally have rejected transactions.

  11. hmmm.. you also made a good point. The sound effect of vinyl players have been added to music such as “Tim McGraw – Over and Over” – but it really doesn’t spark an interest in me even though I know it’s there. And…. the grainy, jittery film effect can be applied in digital video applications, but many people consider excessive use of the effect to be of much nuisance (compare PowerPoint animations and font varieties)…

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